Promised much, delivered little

Damian Hall wonders why Stephen Hughes slipped away after a promising start to his career at Arsenal

People got pretty excited about young Stephen Hughes. For a youth system that manufactured almost an entire double-winning team in the late 1960s and the likes of Liam Brady, David O’Leary and Tony Adams in its wake, the 1990s were an embarrassing barren spell for Arsenal. While rivals were carefully hatching out the likes of David Beckham, Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand, the Arsenal footballer factory was fine-tuning Ian Selley – a Toploader to your U2, if you like.

Highbury had been waiting impatiently for some homegrown talent to shout about when tufty-haired Hughes debuted against Aston Villa on Boxing Day 1994. An FA Youth Cup winner, the fearless 18-year-old had represented England Under-15s and would later became an Under-21 regular. In January 1997 he scored at Roker Park in the FA Cup and made 14 league appearances that season, showing attacking urgency, good passing skills, a classy, careful dead-ball delivery and a vicious shot. Just because you’re a left-footed midfielder doesn’t make you the new Liam Brady, but Hughes was more than just another Ian Selley.

During the 1997-98 double triumph Hughes play­ed an important bit part with 27 appearances. In a crucial 2-0 win over Chelsea and namesake Mark, he bagged both goals, prompting Arsenal fans into a predictable yet pertinent round of “There’s only one Hughes in London”. John Barnes claimed Hughes had an outside chance of making Glenn Hod­dle’s World Cup squad. From that mo­ment onwards, however, Hughes’s story is one of false starts and frustration.

David Lacey in the Guardian proclaimed him the answer to England’s eternally problematic left side, but Arsenal central midfield incumbents Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit had made themselves immovable by winning the World Cup and during the next season Hughes was seen by some to epitomise the plight of prodigious English talent suffocated by foreign im­ports. He could have improved most Premiership mid­fields at that point and, more importantly, he knew it. Perhaps it was this attitude that meant his opportunities to impress weren’t always taken; the would-be play­maker made just four league starts in 1998-99.

Impatient, Hughes was soon on the transfer list and then on loan to First Division Fulham with a view to a move, but the three months agreed shrank to four games as he was apparently upset at being sub. Injuries didn’t help, but Hughes featured in just two further league games for Arsenal before Walter Smith rescued him in March. He went straight into the Everton team, putting in some solid if unspectacular performances.

Hughes started 2000-01 brightly but, in a struggling team, form dipped, accompanied by rumours. Everton outcast Alex Nyarko later revealed that amid a “poisonous” dressing-room atmosphere the youngster came to blows with coach Archie Knox during half-time at Valley Parade. Hughes wanted out and the feeling was mutual.

The homesick southerner seemed set for a move to Upton Park had Harry Red­knapp not been sacked. When his con­tract wasn’t renewed Hughes returned to the capital, joining fellow Arsenal evac­uees Paolo Vernazza and David Noble as part of Gianluca Vialli’s ill-fated Wat­ford joyride.

Watford should have provided an ideal jump-start to Hughes’s faltering career. After three and a half months, however, Hughes made his last appearance for the club, falling victim to an unusually diligent groin injury which rendered him inactive for the next 13 months. Amid the post-Vialli cost-cutting operation a financial settlement enabled Watford to release a player who had become invisible at Vicarage Road.

Now without a contract, Hughes turned out for West Ham reserves last December. When the transfer window swung open in January, Fulham and Middlesbrough were also sniffing about. It seems he’s still highly rated – but no takers. In March he played on trial for a Charlton XI in a behind-closed-doors friendly.

At 26, just three months younger than Vieira, the midfielder is effectively unwanted, on the football scrap heap. It seems Stephen Hughes is either a classic case of “too much too young”or has the unenviable knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

From WSC 196 June 2003. What was happening this month